Humour is notoriously hard to explain. For instance, if I slipped on ice and fell on my arse I think we’d all agree it wouldn’t be funny. However, when it happens to you it’s hilarious. Why is this?
A similar sort of category error arises in film genres such as ‘horror’. In its day Psycho was considered a horror film, with its quaint total of three jump scares, two obliquely-seen murders and one ever-mounting sense of tension. Modern film studios, though, seem to think horror audiences need a ‘surprise’ fright and gruesome death every ten minutes. Little wonder the terror soon curdles to tedium.
So, there’s the predictability which undermines the current cinema notion of frights and thrills, but also the lack of relatability. I’m pretty unlikely to encounter the undead, no matter how bad my colleagues smell. Dangerously unhinged neighbours and stalkers, though, are the stuff of your newspaper’s daily court reports. Ask any number of parents to name their worst nightmare and the cineplex answers (say, ‘zombie apocalypse’ or ‘a Volkswagen with a mind of its own’) would rank several places below the more prosaic ‘child goes missing in train station’.
Anyway, here’s a thriller that’ll scare the bejaysus out of you. And Soon The Darkness, an English movie from 1970, has no zombies or shoot-outs, but a mundane scenario that takes a terrifying turn for the worse, with the implicit threat that It Could Be You.
Two English girls are on a classic cycling holiday through rural France. Picture the scene: freewheeling from village to village in the summer sun, along tree-lined roads, past ploughed fields and tended vines, as church bells ring in the distance. You can almost taste the baguette, jambon and vin rouge. While outside a cafe at one of their stops, the pair make eye contact with a handsome, brooding young man. Soon after, on the road, he passes them on his moped. On they pedal to the next village and what do you know; there he is again, sitting outside the local bar. Is he waiting for them? Now things get properly sinister.
For a film that was apparently made on the cheap and on the fly (by the crew of the Avengers TV series, who were at a loose end after their current series had wrapped) And Soon The Darkness is exquisitely crafted. Right from the start, with the Gothic opening titles and unsettling prog-rock score, our idyllic setting betrays an undercoat of weirdness. The photography is stunning: lingering wide-angle shots of that picturesque landscape contrasting with smash cuts and foreground close-ups that bring home the eeriness and danger lurking like spiders in the detail. There’s a particular shot towards the end which references two famous scenes, one from Lawrence of Arabia and the other from The Searchers, in a single set-up. You’ll know it when you see it. Now that’s enjoyable film-making.
Like in the wintry Venice, Italy of Don’t Look Now, that other superlative British horror-thriller of the early ’70s, these locals of la France profonde seem edgy and furtive, though it’s not all Johnny Foreigner-bashing: one of them is an expat Brit. The dialogue and acting are solid, if perfunctory — instead, the dramatic momentum is carried by the clockwork precision of the plotting. What on earth has happened? Whodunit? And how will it end? There are enough potential clues and suspects to keep it all bubbling along right until the end.
And Soon The Darkness was remade in 2010 as an American action-thriller, with predictable results (see above). So, never mind that — treat yourself to the original. Here’s the trailer:
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